Monolithos was four fisherman huts along the water,
a miniature villa closed for years, and our farmhouse
a hundred feet behind. Hot fields of barley, grapes,
and tomatoes stretching away three flat miles
to where the rest of the island used to be.
— Not Part of Literature: from Monolithos, by Jack Gilbert (1982)
A cold January in London is always the perfect time to head inside. Sunday finds us at the British Museum, gazing enthralled at a small statue which transports us to a different world entirely.
Inside the case, an acrobat is jumping over the horns of a charging bull — a feat of agility captured in Bronze Age craftsmanship more than three and a half thousand years ago.
The Minoans who made the statue lived around the eastern Mediterranean for well over a thousand years.
Settling from 2600 BC around Knossos, near modern Heraklion on the Greek island of Crete, they built rich palaces which were destroyed and rebuilt several times after 1700 BC, before their sites were taken over by the Myceneans around 1420 BC.
* * * * *
It’s early morning and the sun is already hot across the blackness of the beach. To the south, the road snakes its way up the limestone cliff to Ancient Thera. It’s one of the most beautiful places on Earth, but the climb of Mesa Vouno will kill me long before I get there.
I head north along the shore, with the Aegean Sea on my right, and work my way slowly out of Kamari. The strip is quiet at this time of day, with just a few old folks up in search of breakfast. The rest of the resort is sleeping off last night.
The deserted boutique hotels and bars fall swiftly behind me, and soon I reach the end of town and the start of Greece.
It’s peaceful running here. Beside the road, straggly vines are draped across the ground in Santorini style. A few outposts of tourism potter by — a villa or two, a budget hotel, and a half-authentic looking café where a handful of braver holidaymakers await a tour bus towards the marvels of the caldera.
I trot past a pitch of pines, round a corner, and the vista opens up. Across the airport to my left, the horizon rises evenly through sparse brown fields. The white town of Pyrgos stands atop the hillside, looking out to Fira on the crater rim and the tourist trail to Oia.
No flights are moving yet, but a few cars drift past me, carrying workers to their travel agencies and hotels. Ten minutes goes by as the day grows warmer and my legs steadily measure out the long road beside the runway.
The church of Agios Ioannis (St John) lies up ahead. Not far beyond lies the pretty beach of Monolithos, with Vourvoulos hidden further on. Quiet, dreamy hideaways these, floating in the forgotten corners of a tourist island — yet still recalling the violent history of this place.
This landscape, between Ancient Thera, Pyrgos and Monolithos, formed around a smaller, older island which was buried in a series of volcanic eruptions throughout the past 200,000 years.
The road to Vourvoulos cuts through cross-bedded volcaniclastics, stuffed with vicious basalt boulders, each more than big enough to kill a man. Dating from an early volcanic eruption on Santorini, these rocks speak of a time before recorded human history.
The main event here occurred 40,000 years later, around 1645 BC. The Minoan civilisation ruled the eastern Mediterranean then. But the archeological record of the period is scant, perhaps consistent with the geological catastrophe which unfolded at that time.
Even the dramatic and cataclysmic eruption of Krakatoa in 1883 scarcely holds a candle to events on Santorini, where the start of the main eruption saw the ejection of an ash column 36 km high, covering the island in a blanket of pumice up to 5 m thick and spreading an ash cloud all around the Eastern Mediterranean.
A second phase saw boiling pyroclastic flows spread out across the ground at up to 180 km/h. The flows were 10 m thick and draped relief up to 400 m in height. Seawater entering the crater reacted with the lava to set off violent explosions, sending huge angular chunks of basalt high into the sky and then raining back to Earth.
More ash falls up to 40 m thick fell around the crater edge in the third eruptive phase — these contain rock fragments up to 10 m in size within the flows. Finally, reworking of material from the eruptive cone laid down clastic fans up to 40 m thick across the coastal plains.
In all, the Minoan eruption saw the extrusion of some 60 million cubic metres of rock. The sound of the Krakatoa explosion was heard 5,000 km away and we can assume that the Santorini blast was heard throughout the ancient world. Surrounding coasts were likely devastated by terrible tsunami.
Throughout the Aegean and further afield across the eastern Mediterranean, the atmosphere would have been dark for days (or even weeks or months) as the ash cloud spread east and southeast on the prevailing wind.
These events echo with persistent myths of the ancient world. The lost land of Atlantis was described by Plato as a circular, concentrically-formed island bigger than (or set between?) Libya and Asia, graced with hot and cold springs, destroyed by fire and lightning and sunk overnight into the sea 9,000 years (in fact, 900 years) before the time of Solon. The Biblical plagues of Egypt around 1500BC saw day turned to night, hail mixed with fire and the River Nile turning red with blood.
On Santorini, the eruption buried the Minoan settlement at Akrotiri in a thick layer of pumice.
Further beyond, in Crete, tsunami damage to harbours and ships may be one reason for a dramatic weakening in the Minoans’ wealth and influence, which led to their conquest by the Myceneans not many years after.
* * * * *
I climb the hill to reach the church, and look out across a blue expanse of Aegean Sea.
Minoan trading ships called here, four thousand years ago. After the Myceneans came the Dorians, who founded ‘Ancient’ Thira around 900 BC. Then came Greeks, Spartans, Romans (later Byzantines) and Franks.
The Venetians named the island after Saint Irene. Then came the Ottomans, before Santorini gained independence in 1821, joining modern Greece in 1830.
I turn and gaze back across the island. New visitors fly in here now, each and every day. That’s because high above me, atop the crater rim, the sunken caldera hosts some of the most spectacular sunsets seen on Earth.
The pretty towns atop the ridge are as beautiful as anywhere I’ve seen, their outlook made all the more majestic by views of the slowly rising fresh volcanic island of Nea Kameni, far below. There a new shield volcano is steadily building towards the next devastating eruption on Santorini.
I kick my heels again, down past the airport and back beside the beach. The heat of a Greek summer’s day is building through five hot kilometres to Kamari, and my legs tire with every single footfall. Another day can start now, of a morning’s stay beside the pool and an afternoon ride to swim at Monolithos.
Ten kilometres on a hot Santorini morning will store safely yet for a winter’s day in London. These echoing skies from one instant of recent geological time, run across all of ancient history.
122. Cephallonia dreaming
75. The Cruel Sea – the Indian Ocean tsunami
129. Tenerife – 1: the light at the end of the world
186. Firth of stone and fire – North Berwick, Scotland
43. A sense of time – Earth history and the London Marathon
152. Running on Roman Road 1 – The Devil’s Highway, Bracknell Forest Five
Santorini eruption much larger than originally believed
— Haraldur Sigurdsson, Univ. of Rhode Island (2006)
Santorini (Thera) and its eruption in the late Bronze Age
— David A. Sewell, PhD Thesis, Univ. Reading (2001)
The Minoan Eruption on Santorini
Santorini and the legend of Atlantis
Minoan bull leaper — British Museum, London
18: Minoan bull leaper — BBC Radio 4: A History of the World in 100 Objects
And here’s a film clip:
How Earth Made Us: 1. Prof Iain Stewart of Plymouth University climbs the cliffs of Santorini, describing the eruption and its devastating effects.
This is on my must-see list. Thanks for the nice reminder.
That’s a pleasure, Wombats. Santorini is well worth a visit.
Oia is simply spectacular, and there are some less pricey places to stay and eat more off the beaten track, too.
I love it when you go all geologist on us.
Paleohistory and volcanism fascinate.
What a story the earth can tell!
Awards — Good to see you today!
It looks like an amazing place!